by Ray Newton
For the thousands of people who daily drive by 505 W. Gurley St., it’s likely only a handful know they are going past the oldest Protestant church in Arizona.
The Rev. Dan Hurlbert, senior pastor at Prescott United Methodist Church, and other church staff are dedicating 2020 to celebrating the 1870 founding and consequent growth of the 150-year-old church.
“We’re celebrating, even with the restrictions placed on us by COVID-19, by doing something special at every service to remind our parishioners of the heritage and legacy they have in this church,” Hurlbert said.
A celebration is planned for July 5, when the famed Voices of Liberty, an award-winning vocal group from Walt Disney World in Orlando, is scheduled for a 10:30 a.m. concert. Hurlbert praised the singers as exceptional, noting they had been invited to sing for five U.S. presidents.
Hurlburt is asking residents and visitors to stay updated on forthcoming anniversary activities by checking the church website at www.prescottumc.com. As of press time, Saturday and Sunday services were being streamed online only.
Hurlbert emphasized the main 150th anniversary celebration is being planned for November: “We’re spending a lot of time working on those details.”
Also on the church schedule: inviting pastors from the past to return and share their memories of the church. Already Rev. Peter Perry, who served PUMC from 1994 to 2001, led worship services in mid-March, before the quarantine forced cancellation of live services.
Church History Is Central to Prescott History
Prescott United Methodist Church has been described as the geographical and spiritual center for the community over the decades.
“It’s our intent to continue doing that,” Hurlbert said. “We will continue providing quality in worship through music and other services. The city and greater community will continue to feel our impact because of our intense outreach into the community. We’re proud of the influence we’ve had on this historic town.”
The church’s beginnings go back 150 years to December 1870. That winter, Rev. Alexander Gilmore arrived in what was then the Arizona Territory to serve as an Army chaplain at Fort Whipple.
Gilmore, ordained as a Methodist minister when he lived on the East Coast many years before, preached the first Methodist sermon in Prescott on Dec. 7, in a primitive two-story log building that doubled as a courthouse and community center. Gilmore was affiliated with what was then called Northern Methodist Church, so named because of the division among Methodists over the slavery issue.
A few days later, Gilmore was joined by Rev. Alexander Groves. Groves had been serving congregations for the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
So it was that a previously preacherless Prescott had two Methodist ministers operating out of the same church. Church records show the two presided over weekly services — one on Saturday evening and two on Sunday mornings.
By 1872, the Methodist Church South had erected a frame building on Marina Street. But in 1876, Henry Fleury, a prosperous Prescottonian, donated land at the corner of Gurley and Summit streets. That became the location for the Methodist Church where it is today.
Those interested can find a commemorative bronze plaque at the base of a tree located between the original church building and the one built just a few years ago.
Decades ago, when other denominations began establishing churches in Prescott, they were invited to use the Methodist Church as their base. Baptist, Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic ministers and priests all used the Methodist Church as a base while identifying their own sites and building houses of worship.
A detailed history of how Gilmore and Groves and their successors founded what is now Prescott United Methodist Church was written by Rev. Stan Brown, a retired Methodist minister who, with his wife Ruth, now lives in Prescott. Copies of “Prescott’s Mother Church” can be found in libraries or online at www.prescottumc.com/about.
Additional church history was assembled by longtime Prescott resident Jean Phillips, including the large altar Bible that was brought to Prescott in 1874. It is on display in the Prescott Public Library, 215 E. Goodwin St., with other items Phillips and her colleagues have collected.
Photo: Courtesy of PUMC